The Spirit Of Christmas

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From 1958 to 1976, Salvador Dali, commissioned by a large company, designed an annual Christmas card. The example shown above is from 1971, and might have been designed specifically for the Haunted Shoreline: the dangerously erotic siren appears to be arising from the very shoreline itself, an avatar of the liminal. What better image than this to bestow the compliments of the season on all who pass by this place. And do take the time to peruse the rest of Dali’s festive greetings cards, along with some background information, here. Season’s greetings to you all.

The Sound Of Sirens

sea nymph ebj

Edward Burne Jones, “The Sea Nymph”, 1881

For some time I have been thinking of mermaids. These alluring creatures embody many aspects of the current which animates the Haunted Shoreline, and there is also a strong local connection: the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones lived on this stretch of coastline, at Rottingdean, for the last 18 years of his life, and while residing here he seems to have been rather preoccupied (perhaps even haunted) by sea sirens, which appear in many of his paintings of this period (the wonderfully named blog The Kissed Mouth has an excellent post on this topic).

However, in order to be faithful to the spirit(s) of this adventure, I decided to delay writing about mermaids until such time as the Shoreline itself gave me a sign to proceed. And so it came to pass: I did not, alas, find an actual mermaid washed ashore, but I did find this:

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This is an egg case, probably from a dogfish or ray (anyone able to identify the precise species is invited to get in touch through the comments), but the relevance here comes from the name given to such egg cases in folklore… mermaid’s purses. 

The Shoreline having spoken, I headed into Rottingdean village, to St Margaret’s Church, which has a number of stained glass windows by Burne Jones (more on these in a future post) and memorial stones for the artist and his wife Georgiana set into the church wall:

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I was told that nobody is sure whether Burne Jones is actually buried there- “probably his ashes” said the vicar. What is not in doubt is where he lived: he and his wife purchased two adjoining houses, Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage, opposite the church, and later acquired a third – this last was called Gothic House, but the couple renamed it North End House, apparently in reference to North End Road, Fulham, where they had lived prior to their move to the coast (also, the house is the most northerly of the three). All these buildings still stand:

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Left to right: Prospect Cottage, Aubrey Cottage, North End House

The blue plaque on Prospect Cottage:

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So what it is about mermaids? Of course there is an erotic element, but it is an ambiguous eroticism: the mermaid, after all, is sexually unattainable, for obvious anatomical reasons. As such, she may be the epitome of the goddess/temptress dichotomy: able to drive men mad with a desire that can never be sated. But more than this, she is a liminal creature, simultaneously of both the visible human world and the unknowable occult depths (for previous consideration of liminal creatures- that is, Shoreline creatures, see here and here).

Regular readers will know that Surrealist, rather than pre-Rapaelite, art is the house style here at the Shoreline- there are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Surrealism was explicitly concerned with the threshold between the seen and unseen, the daytime world of waking consciousness and the dark dreamzone of the Unconscious, the land and the sea… the Shoreline. So here I present a few Surrealist mermaids. The first, by Andre Masson, is particularly apposite, as it was produced by the process of automatic drawing, one of the key Surrealist techniques for allowing the contents of the Unconscious to cross the liminal threshold and emerge into daylight:

Sirens 1947 by André Masson 1896-1987

Andre Masson, “Sirens”, 1947

That scoundrel Salvador Dali, meanwhile, painted an idiosyncratic vision of The Little Mermaid for a 1966 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, which I haven’t included in this post as it seems such an inferior example of his work, but it can be seen here. Instead I much prefer this, from 1939, in which Dali’s depiction of the mermaid’s dangerous eroticism appears to anticipate future trends in fetishwear:

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Salvador Dali, “Masked Mermaid in Black”, 1939

Finally something from one of the Shoreline’s presiding goddesses, Leonora Carrington – in fact I have posted this painting before, when I mused on the fact that the progression of colours, black-white-red, refers to the three stages of alchemy. But some things bear repeating:

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Now returning, like the Fools we are, to where we began- it may be of note that another folkloric name for a dogfish egg case, a mermaid’s purse,  is devil’s purse. For not only can the mermaid torment a man with impossible desire, she may also drag him to his doom. Plunging into the hazardous waters of love, a man may be utterly undone, as Burne Jones’ most famous mermaid image, The Depths of the Sea (1881) illustrates. I leave you to ponder it, and ponder it well.

Depth-sea-L

An Easter Egg

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After the previous post I hadn’t planned to write anything more regarding Easter this year, but the Shoreline had other ideas: during a short, bracing walk on Saltdean beach on Easter Sunday (short and bracing because it was the coldest Easter day ever recorded in the UK), my 8 year old daughter found this impressive greyish pink stone ‘egg’. The biting cold defeated my attempts to photograph it in situ on the beach, but we brought it home to add to the ever-growing Haunted Shoreline Cabinet of Curiosities, and here it is. Not for the first time, an image alone cannot quite do it justice, as the ovoid appearance is accentuated by its remarkable smoothness, but until such time as this blog is available in sensurround format (in glorious Psychedelic Omnivisionof course), you’ll have to take my word for that.

For obvious reasons, eggs are symbols of fertility, but their esoteric symbology goes well beyond that. We have previously considered the egg of Ouroboros, the cosmic serpent, while in alchemical texts the term Philosophic Egg, or similar, is used as a kind of shorthand for the physical vessels (flasks, alembics) within which the alchemical process unfolds: the container within which the Philosopher’s Stone is gestated.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, eggs appear frequently in Surrealist artworks. They are a recurring trope in Dali’s work (see also here), appearing in many of his paintings,  and the Dali Museum-Theatre in Figueres, Spain, is festooned with giant eggs. For the purposes of this post, the Dalinian image which seems to me most relevant is his 1943 painting Geopoliticus Child Watching The Birth of the New Man:

Painted during WWII while Dali was living in the USA, it is commonly interpreted as a representation of the growing strength of the US as a new world power- certainly this seems to fit, although the esoterically-minded will also note the appearance of a World Egg. To what extent Dali was deliberately referencing alchemical imagery is unclear, but it is a device that recurs in his work- indeed here you can see Dali himself, together with his wife and Muse Gala, being ‘birthed’ from a large egg in a typically outlandish piece of… well, let’s just call it performance art. I am unsure of the date of this film but it is clearly a lot later than the painting above- I would guess it is from the late 1960s, well into Dali’s self-promotion period (see my previous thoughts on that here) and, to me at least, of considerably lesser interest, but the near-identical symbolism is nevertheless worth noting.

Two Surrealist artists who were more explicitly informed by alchemy were Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. In her essay Down Below, Leonora Carrington describes the egg as “..the dividing line between Great and Small, which makes it impossible to see everything at once“. The dividing line– that is, the liminal threshold, akin to my interpretation of the Shoreline.

Here are a couple of striking egg-related works by Leonora Carrington; firstly Ab Eo Quod, from 1956:

ab_eo_quod

The magnificent golden egg is the centrepiece here, but as usual with Leonora, the whole canvas bursts with enigmatic imagery. The Latin inscription on the chair back reads Ab eo, quod nigram caudam habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est. I am indebted to Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art for the information that this is excerpted from a 14th century alchemical text known as the Ascensus Nigrum,which by my reckoning translates as the “the ascent of blackness”, presumably a reference to the transmutation of base matter which is the heart of the alchemical process. The inscription itself translates as something along the lines of “Keep away from that with a black tail; this is the beauty of the Earth”. Whatever this may mean, it seems to relate to the bizarre creature that lurks beneath the table, its black, frond-like tail curling around the room.

In The Giantess, or Guardian of the Egg (1947), the egg is, by contrast, rather small..

leonora-carrington_giantess

.. but then, so is everything else in comparison with the towering central figure, which can be readily interpreted as a goddess form, guarding the more usually male-dominated Hermetic mysteries.

Leonora’s sometime lover Max Ernst, meanwhile, was infused and informed by esotericism throughout his life, and this early work of his, The Inner Vision: The Egg (1929) appears to make direct reference to the Philosophic Egg:

the-inner-vision-the-egg-1929

…and the birds preparing to hatch from it are readily recognisable as representations of Loplop, Ernst’s oft-depicted avian familiar and totemic guide. So this image would appear to refer to Ernst’s own creative processes: his inner alchemy.

But returning to where we started- while my daughter was certainly rather proud of her discovery of the stone egg, it would probably be fair to say that, for her, the egg that held the most fascination this Easter was this one:

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As parents out there will be aware, Kinder Surprise eggs are chocolate eggs that contain small plastic toys- often of a pleasingly bizarre nature. By now, my mind whirling with alchemico-surrealist egg images, I was almost as anxious as her to see what would hatch from this particular egg. And once the chocolate shell was breached, this is what we found within:

arctic_fox

I wasn’t immediately sure what it was (although she knew straight away)- but it came with a nametag, in Latin, no less: Vulpes lagopus, and a quick Google confirmed her insistence that it was, therefore, an Arctic fox.

Which, in view of the extreme cold, seemed to make perfect sense.

A Helix Of Slime

Freud With A Snail Head (Salvador Dali, 1974)

I was in Paris recently, and while there visited Espace Dali, a collection of Dali’s works housed in the Montmartre district. It is very similar to the exhibition that used to be on show at the rather corny Dali Universe ‘attraction’ in London (which closed in 2010), but I much preferred the style of presentation in Paris, which allows the work to stand on its own merits, rather than trying to turn the whole gallery into an advertising exec’s idea of a ‘surreal space’, as was the case in London. The show features mostly later and lesser-known works, many of which were originally commissioned by the Spanish government (Dali’s support for Franco is well-known, and utterly indefensible) for an illustrated series of literary classics including Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland, and both the Old and New Testament.

Dali is, in some sense, one of this blog’s presiding spirits; another is Sigmund Freud, whom Dali greatly admired. In July 1938, the two men met for the only time. What took place at that meeting will be the subject of a future post, but for the purposes of this one, it is important to know that, even before meeting Freud, Dali had apparently formed (and found great significance in) the idea that the ageing doctor’s head resembled a snail. This idea, and its importance, was confirmed in Dali’s mind by a synchronicity that occurred when he went to meet Freud in London: as he waited for the door to be opened, he noticed a snail on the seat of a bicycle parked outside the house. His subsequent meeting with, and observations of, Freud seem to have then reinforced the idea still further.

The image stayed with him ever after: as late as 1974 he produced Freud With A Snail Head, shown above. Like many of his late works,  it was rolled out as a pricey limited edition run of coloured etchings (the spectre of Salvador’s legendary avarice looms large at Espace Dali), one of which is included in the Paris show. I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that it is among his best work. Nevertheless, it is quite a curio item.

So why a snail? What do snails signify?

Squishy. Slimy. Creatures of the damp and shade… of the undergrowth. Thus: avatars of the Unconscious, the erotic, the hidden. The fleshy ooze of sex and other physical taboos.

The picture below, which can also be seen at Espace Dali, is one of a series of works Dali produced for a 1967 illustrated edition of Casanova:

Here the erotic aspect of the snail is made explicit. The gallery notes allude to this, linking snails to lobsters and other sea creatures- another Dalinian trope. What all these have in common (along with eggs, another frequent Dali motif) is the combination of hard shell and soft, glutinous parts. When you think about it, though, almost any organism above a certain level of evolutionary complexity could be described as a melange of hard bits and squishy bits, so this symbolism might seem rather non-specific. Arguably, however, creatures such as snails and lobsters demonstrate this duality in its simplest and most obvious form, somewhat like living Yin/Yang symbols.

Back in Espace Dali, another of the illustrations for Casanova provides a striking demonstration of Dali’s use of crustacean imagery as erotic metaphor:

It is no coincidence that these hard/soft liminal creatures have also been prominent here on the Shoreline: consider the ammonites, the belemnites, the vampire squid, the cuttlefish (and for good measure the egg).

However, I suggest that it would be wrong to see the snail as simply one of a number of almost interchangeable animal symbols in Dali’s work. One senses that it has a particular significance that sets it apart from the lobsters and their ilk. Here, my speculative delvings into Dali’s psyche lean heavily on the central thesis of Ian Gibson’s 1997 book The Shameful Life of Salavdor Dali, by far the best book on him I have read. Gibson’s meticulous research supports an incredibly detailed chronology of Dali’s life (clarifying, correcting, and where necessary debunking the Dalinian myths)- a valuable enough resource in itself- but the book goes much further than this. It is a kind of psychological detective story based around Gibson’s key idea, which is that Dali was in thrall to shame. He was, Gibson contends, ashamed of his peculiarities, his social awkwardness and shyness as a youth, his emotions, his sexual quirks… he was ashamed of the physical grossness inherent in existing at all.. the bodily fluids and carnal slime… and ashamed yet further by his own fascinations with these things.

As Gibson elucidates, shame involves something doubly hidden: if a person is ashamed of, for example, a particular fetish, the fetish itself may well remain a secret, while the shame attached to it will also be hidden: thus we end up with a double secret. Feelings of shame can thus be associated with complex, multi-layered defences, and for this reason may prove particularly intractable.

Early in Dali’s artistic career, his association with Surrealism, immersion in Freudian theory, and the receptive socio-cultural conditions of the time all enabled him to explore his sexual paranoia and body horror in full public view. The Surrealists held that such explorations were liberating, but even as Dali spilled his darkest fantasies across his canvases, and in so doing secured the celebrity he craved, the hidden shame about what he was revealing tormented him more and more. He was, quite simply, ashamed of himself… ashamed of being Salvador Dali. Over time, and as his fame increased, he coped by retreating into the absurdist, and ultimately tedious, megalomania that became his trademark in later life. In short, he became a brand. He talked about ‘Dali’ in the third person, acknowledging that his public persona was a contrivance- but for him, perhaps, a necessary one.

And it is precisely this burning sense of shame which, I suggest, holds the key to Dali’s use of snail imagery.

As we noted, the snail can be readily interpreted as pertaining to the secret, the erotic, the taboo- and, therefore, the shameful. But Dali’s strange intuition that Freud somehow resembled a snail adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of the creature in the context of Dali’s personal mythos. The young Dali hero-worshipped Freud, attributing to him almost supernatural powers of insight, and believing that Freud’s theories were perhaps the first time in history that humanity had attained to certain insights about itself. Freud had penetrated the veils of normalcy and decency: he knew what lay beneath- the sex, violence, deviance… and, of course, the shame. Dali’s reverence for Freud reflected his view that Freud, in his writings, had exhibited a kind of X-ray vision of the psyche: he had described the problem of shame as it really was, as it afflicted him, Dali.  That Freud reminded him of a snail thus becomes enormously significant: the snail becomes symbolic not only of all the dirty slimy stuff down there in the psychic soil, but also of the knowledge of all this, and its revealing and, by extension, of Dali’s private losing battle with his demons of self-loathing.

In Dali’s highly idiosyncratic personal universe, then, the snail is a symbol of extraordinary resonance and power. And as I wandered Espace Dali and all this fell into place, it occurred to me that my being in Paris afforded me the opportunity to perform a ritual in which the power of the snail- now enshrined in my own personal gnosis through the process of seeing (or perhaps concocting) these connections, this psychic narrative- could be brought into my orbit, its potent energies absorbed into my very being.

And, sure enough, just a couple of minutes’ walk away, I found an establishment where I was able to undertake just such a ritual.

Bon appetit.

Love in a Void

I am indebted to the erudite Dr Champagne, leading occult psychogeographer and English Heretic, for pointing out to me the resemblance between the seed pod found recently on Peacehaven beach, and Dali’s 1929 painting Accommodations Of Desire, reproduced above. The Doc has been an enthusiastic email correspondent and supporter of this blog, and it was a pleasure to meet him in the living flesh at the recent GHostings 7 event at Senate House, London, where we discussed this painting and other matters of mutual interest.

Dali was only 25 when he painted this (strictly speaking, a mixture of painting and collage, as the lion heads are cut from a picture book rather than painted), supposedly commencing work on it after returning home from a walk with Gala, the woman who would become his partner, Muse, and surrogate mother figure, but who at this time was still married to Paul Eluard. Dali knew his infatuation with her was indeed a kind of seed pod: all kinds of future complications were gestating in the fertile ground of amour fou.

The painting is commonly interpreted as a pictorial itemisation of Dali’s anxieties about this future, though one could in fact see it as embodying a ritual practice through which the artist attempts to take possession of his fears and master them by the very act of depicting them- thus giving them form– and then taking charge of these forms (artistically, psychologically, magically) by containment, in the strange white seed-stone-egg vessels of the painting. Either way, it is notable that the title refers to accommodations of desire, rather than of fear. The suggestion is that Dali, who at this time was enamoured of Freudian ideas, suspects that while he fears the oncoming storms, he also desires them. Or, at least, his desires are such that he must accept the turmoil they will inevitably bring.

The desire thus accommodated has something in common with the seed pod and the womb, the vessels of gestation and creation. Desire, after all, is crucially involved in the creation of new life (perhaps not in plants, but the messy drama of the human condition is what concerns us here). More generally, we can say that desire is implicated in manifestation- because desire, in this context, implies absence: a yearning for that which is not here, not manifest. The wish for presence from absence, and the calling forth of that presence.

Yet this is the essence of of any creative act: the summoning and shaping of new forms. Words made flesh.

It was thus entirely fitting that the tagline of the GHostings event was:

An evening of interdisciplinary talks and presentations exploring the desire to materialise what is absent.

The forces of synchronicity continue to crackle around the Shoreline, of course, and the day after my conversation with Dr Champagne, my daughter brought home this picture from school… apparently it shows a lily pond…

Consider the lilies: the synchronistic pond

Jump right in.. the water’s lovely…